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Coronavirus (COVID-19) FAQs for Local Governments

This page answers frequently asked questions that we have been receiving from local governments in Washington State due to the novel coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19).

It is part of MRSC's Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resources for Local Governments series.

At this point in the pandemic, we are no longer updating these FAQs on a regular basis. However, if we do add or update an FAQ we will indicate it as NEW or UPDATED.



Emergency Powers Generally

Can a local agency issue an order requiring people to wear face masks in public buildings or public transit facilities?
Updated June 4, 2021

Updated June 4, 2021 to remove specific references to the current state face mask orders. Local governments must follow the state's current guidance; the information below pertains solely to local authority to impose additional face mask requirements above and beyond the state requirements.

A frequent question is whether government officials have the authority to issue an order requiring people to wear masks when entering public buildings or public transit facilities. We believe the answer is “yes.”

While all agencies are required to follow state face mask requirements, the local board of health and local health officer also have the authority to enact local rules and regulations as are necessary in order to preserve, promote and improve the public health, and to provide for the control and prevention of any dangerous, contagious or infectious disease (RCW 70.05.060; RCW 70.05.070). WAC 246-100-070 requires that local law enforcement enforce those orders.

For cities and counties the Washington State Constitution, Article XI, Section 11 provides broad authority to cities and towns to act in the event of an emergency, stating:

Any county, city, town or township may make and enforce within its limits all such local police, sanitary and other regulations as are not in conflict with general laws.

This is an affirmative grant of power. Counties, cities, and towns can rely on this constitutional provision to exercise local police powers so long as the subject matter is local, the city or town is acting in a reasonable way, and the action is consistent with state law. Examples of city and local health board directives are on our COVID-19 Local Emergency Declarations and Authority page under “Emergency Orders Regarding Face Masks.”

Special purpose districts such as hospital districts and water/sewer districts do not have general emergency powers. However, as managers of property we believe they have enough authority to place reasonable conditions on access to that property to protect their employees and visitors.

All local agencies must continue to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act when considering restrictions or conditions of access to public buildings and public transit facilities. Agencies should think about how they can provide reasonable accommodations if necessary.

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What emergency powers do cities and towns have?
Updated May 14, 2020

Updated May 14 for clarity.

The Washington State Constitution, Article XI, Section 11 provides broad authority to cities and towns to act in the event of an emergency, stating:

Any county, city, town or township may make and enforce within its limits all such local police, sanitary and other regulations as are not in conflict with general laws.

This is an affirmative grant of power and cities and towns can rely on this constitutional provision to exercise local police powers so long as the subject matter is local, the city or town is acting in a reasonable way, and the action is consistent with state law.

Another source of emergency powers is found in RCW 38.52.070, which allows cities and towns to bypass standard procedural requirements when entering into contracts and incurring obligations to combat an emergency (such as the COVID-19 pandemic).

The statute authorizes cities and towns to enter into contracts and incur obligations necessary to combat a disaster “without regard to time-consuming procedures and formalities prescribed by law (except mandatory constitutional requirements),” including:

  • Waiver of budget law limitations;
  • Competitive bidding and publication of notice; and
  • Provisions pertaining to the following:
    • Performance of public works
    • Entering into contracts and incurring of obligations
    • Employment of temporary workers
    • Rental of equipment
    • Purchase of supplies and materials
    • Levying of taxes
    • Appropriation and expenditure of public funds.

RCW 38.52.100 authorizes the mayor or city manager to accept the following from private individuals and corporations (as well as from the federal government via the state): services, equipment, supplies materials or funds by way of gift, grant or loan for the purpose of emergency management.

Depending on your city classification, your city may have additional powers in your specific statutory provisions or your charter.

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What emergency powers do counties have?
Published March 17, 2020

In addition to their general police powers in Article 11, Section 11 of the Washington State Constitution, county governments have all the powers delegated to local authorities under chapter 38.52 RCW: Emergency Management. This includes the authority to:

  • Enter into contracts and incur obligations necessary to combat the disaster, protecting the health and safety of persons and property, and providing emergency assistance to the victims of such disaster.
  • Waive non-constitutional budget law limitations, requirements of competitive bidding and publication of notices, provisions pertaining to the performance of public work, entering into contracts, the incurring of obligations, the employment of temporary workers, the rental of equipment, the purchase of supplies and materials, the levying of taxes, and the appropriation and expenditures of public funds. RCW 38.52.070(2).
  • Command the services and equipment of as many citizens as necessary. The persons and equipment will be treated as if they were registered emergency workers.

Additionally, counties can adopt a resolution under RCW 36.40.180 allowing for emergency expenditures. (Adoption must be by unanimous vote of commissioners present).

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What emergency powers do public hospital districts have?
Updated March 20, 2020

Unlike counties, cities, and towns, neither the Washington State Constitution nor chapter 70.44 RCW (Public Hospital Districts) provide for a general grant of emergency powers to public hospital districts.

However, public hospital districts can take the following actions during an emergency:

  • Participate in joint local emergency management organizations with other government entities and city/town/county comprehensive emergency management plans via a mutual aid or interlocal agreement pursuant to RCW 38.52.091 – see MRSC’s page on Local Government Emergency Planning for more on this topic.
  • Waive competitive processes for contracting in the event of an emergency pursuant to RCW 39.04.280(1)(c) and (e) – see MRSC’s FAQ What emergency powers relate to contracting? for more on this topic.
  • The legislative body can call an emergency meeting if the district needs to take expedited action to meet the emergency – this must truly by a specific emergency faced by the district, and not a general emergency faced by society as a whole.

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What emergency powers do water and sewer districts have?
Published March 20, 2020

Unlike counties, cities, and towns, neither the Washington State Constitution nor Title 57 RCW (Water-Sewer Districts) provide for a general grant of emergency powers to water and sewer districts.

However, water and sewer districts can take the following actions during an emergency:

  • Participate in joint local emergency management organizations with other government entities and city/town/county comprehensive emergency management plans via a mutual aid or interlocal agreement pursuant to RCW 38.52.091 – see MRSC’s page on Local Government Emergency Planning for more on this topic.
  • Waive competitive processes for contracting in the event of an emergency pursuant to RCW 39.04.280(1)(c) and (e) – see MRSC’s FAQ What emergency powers relate to contracting? for more on this topic.
  • The legislative body can call an emergency meeting if the district needs to take expedited action to meet the emergency – this must truly by a specific emergency faced by the district, and not a general emergency faced by society as a whole.
  • With regard to waiver of fees and disconnection penalties, the Governor’s March 18, 2020 proclamation has called on all public utilities during the term of the statewide emergency declaration to:
    • Suspend disconnection of services due to non-payment; and
    • Waive late payments and fees or offer customer payment plans.

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Who establishes the order of succession in the event that an elected mayor or county executive or an appointed city or county manager becomes incapacitated and unable to serve as the result of the pandemic?
Published April 7, 2020

The order of succession is not addressed in state law—it is a matter of local decision. Chapter 38.52 RCW vests emergency powers in the “executive head” of a county, city or town. RCW 38.52.010(12) defines “executive head” as:

  • The county executive in charter counties with an elective office of county executive;
  • The county legislative authority in the case of other counties;
  • The mayor in those cities and towns with a mayor-council form of government where the mayor is directly elected; and
  • The city manager in those cities and towns with council manager forms of government.

Cities and towns can also designate an executive head by ordinance.

Each local government may, as part of its emergency management plan or an emergency order, specify an order of succession in the event its executive head is unable to serve for any reason. For an example of a continuity of government plan, which addresses order of succession, as well as emergency levels of operation and prioritization of services, see the City of Kenmore Pandemic Emergency Continuity of Government Plan.

This question is part of the larger issue of continuity of operations, which MRSC addressed in our recent blog post Continuity of Operations During the COVID-19 Emergency.

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Office Closures and Telecommuting

Who has the authority to close a local government office during a public health emergency?
Updated March 31, 2020

The Washington State Office of the Attorney General issued an Informal Opinion in 2006 address the issue of whether a local health department would have the authority to close a local jurisdiction, opining that it may but the better practice is to work with the jurisdiction in closing government buildings if public health necessitates closure.

The legislative body of a city sets the days and hours in which city offices are open. RCW 35A.21.070; RCW 35.21.175. RCW 36.16.100 grants the same authority to county legislative body (council or board of commissioners). Thus, the legislative body must take action to close agency offices, unless it has delegated this authority to the chief executive through code or local policy.

One possible exception is in counties where separately-elected officials may wish to close their departments. While we find no clear legal authority for them to do so absent a county-wide policy delegating this authority, case law and attorney general opinions indicate that the board of commissioners generally has quite limited authority to impose requirements regarding other personnel matters related to non-union county officers and employees hired by and under the control of other county elected officials, absent agreement with those elected officials. So, to the extent that the department heads do not exceed their budget authority, there is an argument that each of the independently-elected department heads have the authority to close their offices.

We recommend that agencies consult their attorneys on this issue and that they work together to provide a consistent standard that is easy for residents and employees to follow.

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What are the best practices for implementing a telecommuting program?
Published March 19, 2020

With strict social distancing policies in place in response to COVID-19, many local governments in Washington are moving quickly to implement telecommuting arrangements for employees who can work from home. Here are a few baseline considerations and best practices for telework, with some sample policies and additional resources.

Best practice tips for smaller entities without a Virtual Private Network (VPN), IT crew, or a way to remote:

For many local government employees, telework under the current circumstances may literally be limited to a telephone connection with their office and communication via email. In these instances it will be helpful to consider the following:

  • Plan for regular check-ins during the day by phone or email.
  • Create a phone tree for staff, including emergency contact information. Make sure you all know how the tree will work and who calls whom and under what circumstances.
  • Free conference calling services include freeconference.com and Google Hangouts. Popular web-based video conferencing tools include Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts Meet, and GoToMeeting.
  • If the current circumstances continue, your organization may want to consider using a system like gsuite for instant messaging, video chat, and document creation, management, and sharing. It offers tiered pricing depending on your organization’s size, and has a phone app as well.

Best practice tips for larger entities with IT staff and remote capabilities:

  • Make sure you have adequate remote connections to your system.
  • Provide appropriate tech support. For many employees this will be their first time telecommuting and they will have a lot of basic software and connectivity questions. This may mean your tech support will need additional support.
  • Have a written policy that addresses both emergency and non-emergency situations and is clear about expectations.
  • Encourage the use of instant messaging systems that can be used by team members to check in and stay connected.
  • Make sure you know how and who to contact in case of emergency, especially where a large portion of your staff are remote.

Telework policy tips:

Here are points to consider when forming policies and guidelines:

  • References to any human resources policies, work guidelines, and/or additional requirements employees are expected to follow;
  • Agreed upon schedule of telework: include days and hours;
  • A formal agreement with employees;
  • Expectations of availability during core business hours, including how the employee will be expected to communicate, and how they will conduct meetings with other employees and clients (onsite or via phone/video?);
  • Requirements for daycare or dependent care during working hours; and
  • Who has the right to suspend or end a telecommuting agreement.

Cybersecurity risks for telecommuting

A big problem with remote work is security. On-site computers work on secure networks, but security off-network is questionable. Here are some tips:

  • Make your agreement explicit if you don’t want employees on public WiFi, and make sure they know what public WiFi and unsecured networks are.
  • Alert employees to an expected increase in phishing attempts. Malicious cyber actors may increase phishing emails targeting teleworkers to steal their usernames and passwords. Be aware that there are cybercriminals capitalizing on this emergency, including phishing emails purporting to be from the CDC.
  • VPNs and Remote Desktop Connections pose some risk; check with your IT staff to make sure patches and updates are current.

For examples of telecommuting policies and agreements, including some temporary agreements specific to the current COVID-19 crisis, see our Telecommuting page.

Related resources:

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Enforcing Emergency Orders

Does a city have the authority to issue a quarantine (separation of individuals who have been exposed to an infection) or an isolation (separation of those who have been infected)?
Published March 3, 2020

Quarantines are typically imposed by the Governor, or the local Board of Health, not by cities. However, local governments do have broad powers to protect public health. For instance, an old Seattle ordinance related to communicable diseases (quarantine exposure to smallpox) was upheld by the Washington Supreme Court:

There is no doubt and it is not denied that the city had the power to enact the ordinance here in question and had the power to create health and quarantine officers, as it has done, by the charter and ordinance provisions. [City of Seattle v. Cottin, 144 Wash. 572, 576, 258 P. 520, 521 (1927)]

Therefore, while it appears under this 1927 case that cities do have the authority impose a quarantine, the better practice is to coordinate with the county board of health on issuance of a quarantine.

For more information on quarantine authority, see "Federal and State Quarantine and Isolation Authority," Congressional Research Service Report for Congress (October 9, 2014).

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Can a local government prohibit hoarding of resources and products?
Published March 20, 2020

Although the local health officer does have broad authority to “[t]ake such action as is necessary to maintain health and sanitation supervision” under RCW 70.05.070(2), there is no specific authority granted to the local health officer or other local government to prohibit resource and product hoarding.

Local governments should disseminate information over their communication channels discouraging resource and product hoarding – a good example of this is the state Department of Health’s press release telling Washingtonians to Leave some for your neighbors: Don’t buy more than you need.

For their part, retailers have been imposing purchase limits for high demand items; local health officers should be in direct communication with local retailers on this issue. And, on a related note, the State Attorney General’s Office is investigating complaints of price gouging related to COVID-19, so any price gouging should be reported to the AGO.

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Are city police and county sheriffs obligated to enforce emergency orders related to matters such as restaurant closures, social distancing, and limits on crowds?
Updated June 25, 2020

Updated June 25 to include information about enforcing the state Secretary of Health's orders, following the issuance of Order 2020-03 requiring face masks to be worn in most public settings.

With regard to local and state health department orders issued under RCW 70.05.060 and 70.05.070, yes. WAC 246-100-070 provides as follows:

Enforcement of local health officer orders.

(1) An order issued by a local health officer in accordance with this chapter shall constitute the duly authorized application of lawful rules adopted by the state board of health and must be enforced by all police officers, sheriffs, constables, and all other officers and employees of any political subdivisions within the jurisdiction of the health department in accordance with RCW 43.20.050. [emphasis added].
(2) Any person who shall violate any of the provisions of this chapter or any lawful rule adopted by the board shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor punishable as provided under RCW 42.20.050.
(3) Any person who shall fail or refuse to obey any lawful order issued by any local health officer shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor punishable as provided under RCW 70.05.120.

RCW 43.70.130(7) gives the state Secretary of Health the same authority as local health officers during an emergency. So, the statute requires that the Secretary’s orders must be enforced.

With regard to the Governor’s orders, the law is not as clear on enforcement. While local law enforcement have the authority to investigate violations of the Governor’s orders whether they are obligated to do so is not as clear. RCW 38.52.110(1) provides for the commandeering of local law enforcement, but the Governor’s orders do not clearly invoke this authority. RCW 38.52.150 does provide that it is “the duty of every organization for emergency management” and “the officers thereof to execute and enforce” the orders of the Governor. However, the definition of “local organization for emergency services or management” in RCW 38.52.010(19) does not appear to automatically encompass local law enforcement.

Nothing in these statutes affects the traditional discretion afforded to local law enforcement and prosecuting attorneys.  

On March 30, 2020, Governor Inslee issued guidance for enforcement of the “Stay at Home” order. While violation of the order is still a criminal offense, law enforcement agencies are prioritizing education over criminal penalties for individuals and businesses. For businesses, the Governor’s office points out that local governments and state regulatory agencies may take additional enforcement action, such as citations, suspension notices, revoking someone’s business license, potential criminal charges, and even a Consumer Protection Act violation action.

For an example of local enforcement actions, see the Spokane Regional Health District enforcement process for non-essential businesses that remain open. This three-phase strategy for enforcing the governor's stay-at-home order, with supporting legal documents and instructions to law enforcement officers, is initiated by complaints to the county sheriff's office, which forwards the complaint to the appropriate local law enforcement agency with primary jurisdiction where the business is located. If the business is determined to be non-essential, it will be asked to close immediately. If the business does not comply and further complaints are received, the enforcement process can escalate to an injunction/temporary restraining order closing the business.

The state has also established a website for reporting violations of the Governor’s order.

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What is the process for an arrest and prosecution of a violation of an emergency order?
Published March 18, 2020

Special thanks to Pam Loginsky, Staff Attorney, Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, for assistance with this topic.

RCW 43.06.220 gives the governor the authority to issue orders during a proclaimed emergency. RCW 43.06.220(5) makes willful violation of those orders a gross misdemeanor. The statute also provides that, after the emergency has been proclaimed, malicious destruction of property, disorderly conduct, refusing to leave a public way or property when ordered, all carry criminal penalties. (See RCW 43.06.230, 43.06.240, and 43.06.250.) Persons 16 years or over may be prosecuted as an adult for certain violations under this chapter (RCW 43.06.260).

RCW 70.05.120(4) makes violations of certain state and local health department rules or orders a misdemeanor. It also makes evading or breaking quarantine a misdemeanor.

Who can be charged?

Any natural person who violates the order. Also, an entity (a business organized under Title 23, 23B, or 25 RCW) that violates an order can be charged with a crime (RCW 10.01.070). An entity is subject to fines of up to $50,000 for a misdemeanor violation and up to $250,000 for a gross misdemeanor violation (RCW 10.01.100).

Who investigates?

Local law enforcement agencies have the authority to investigate violations occurring in their jurisdiction. And, as appropriate, to issue citations, arrest, or refer violations to the prosecuting attorney. (The Attorney General has opined that the Sheriff and city police have concurrent jurisdiction over felonies and violations of state law within incorporated cities (AGO 1990 No. 4, AGO 1961-62 No. 25)).

As with all gross misdemeanor and misdemeanors, a law enforcement official can only arrest (without a warrant) if the offense is committed in the officers’ presence, unless one of the exceptions in RCW 10.31.100 applies.

Where does it get filed?

If the city or town has adopted the specific state laws authorizing emergency orders by reference, or adopts an ordinance making violation of these types of emergency orders a violation in the City’s code, it can be filed by the city prosecutor in its local court. Otherwise, it should be referred to the county prosecutor.

City and county prosecutors should verify that the case is filed in the correct local court. Was it created under chapter 3.30, 3.50, or 35.20?

Law enforcement agencies should coordinate with their emergency management team and surrounding jurisdictions on their protocol for detaining persons who may be contagious. Agencies might consider a consolidated facility in order to reduce staffing requirements and risk of contagion.

Finally, law enforcement agencies should seek guidance from their police legal advisor and/or prosecutor.

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Public Meetings and Public Hearings

How do we adjourn into an executive session during a “remote” meeting?
Updated March 31, 2020

Pretty much the same way you normally would. The presiding officer announces that they are going to adjourn into executive session, states the purpose, and the time they will return. Use the Executive Session Script, as modified for the technology you’re using.

What comes next depends on the technology you’re using. Depending on your conferencing software, the governing body can switch to a different call/session, while leaving the public meeting call/session open. We recommend a staff member stay on the original call/session to remind other attendees that the governing body will reconvene. The presiding officer should ask each person attending the executive session to confirm that no one who was not invited to the executive session is either physically present or on the line.

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What are our options if a board/council member refuses to comply with public health requirements at an in-person public meeting?
Updated March 24, 2022

Updated March 24, 2022 to reflect current statewide public health requirements.

Keep in mind that Proclamation 20-28.14 (extended by Proclamation 20-28.15) still requires remote meetings. Local governments must still provide, at a minimum, telephonic access to the meeting. The jurisdiction may opt for an in-person component which allows, at most, hybrid meetings.

That said, the current version of Proclamation 20-28 prohibits an in-person component to public meetings unless all of the listed requirements are met. One of those requirements is compliance with current Health Department and Department of Labor and Industries guidance. You can find current guidance on those departments’ websites.

If your agency is unable to follow all state and local health requirements at any time during a public meeting with an in-person component, Proclamation 20-28 requires the meeting be recessed until compliance is restored or if compliance cannot be restored then adjourned, continued, or otherwise terminated. If the issue cannot be resolved, the meeting should be continued remote-only.

 Of course, continuing, recessing, and adjourning a meeting requires a majority vote of the council. The presiding officer does not have unilateral authority. If the council does not act, the administrator/executive, as an employer, has an obligation to ensure safe work conditions for all staff. Staff should not be compelled to attend in-person meetings that violate LNI Publication F414-179 or, if applicable,  ESSB 5115, the Health Emergency Labor Standards Act (protections for high-risk workers).

 MRSC acknowledges that some jurisdictions’ attorneys have reached a different conclusion, particularly as it applies to local masking requirements more stringent than those listed above. Jurisdictions should rely upon the legal advice of their own attorney.

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Signature Authority and Electronic Signatures

Are there alternatives to a physical signature on checks/warrants for accounts payable and payroll?
Published April 6, 2020

Many local governments have begun providing payments via an electronic payment system of some type. Financial software systems have been providing this feature at an increasing rate over the years and it is quickly becoming the standard in many larger systems. In addition, a local government’s bank may also offer a remote check printing service as well. In this case, the local government provides their bank an electronic file containing the data for the checks that need to be printed and distributed. The bank may provide for these payments through an electronic means available to them, or actually print the checks and mail them on behalf of the government. This service is offered by most major banks and can be arranged for through your banking partner.

Alternatively, the entity could provide payment with a purchasing card in those instances where the entity has previously approved the use of purchasing cards for payment of accounts payable claims. This is also a practice that is seeing increasing use for a variety of other reasons. See our Credit Card Use Policies page for more information.

It may be necessary, or at least a “best practice,” to have the authority for the use of an electronic signature, or some other alternative to a “wet” signature authorized by your policy board. This authority can describe the conditions and minimum procedural requirements for the use of an electronic, or alternative means, approach to a traditional physical signature.

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Procurement

What emergency powers relate to contracting?
Published March 18, 2020

First of all, any purchase, public works project, or service for which a competitive process is waived must be an explicit necessity and directly related to the emergency.

That said, the competitive bidding exemptions of RCW 39.04.280 could apply in this situation – in particular, waiving the normal competitive bidding procedures for emergency purchases, emergency public works, or (potentially) purchases related to special market conditions. For more information, see our Competitive Bidding Exemptions page.

In addition, RCW 39.80.060 provides an exemption for emergency architecture and engineering (A&E) contracts.

There are no statutory requirements for purchased services or (for most agencies) personal services, so agencies should follow their own internal procedures. For port districts, RCW 53.19.020-.030 provides an exemption for emergency personal service contracts.

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How do we proceed with holding a public bid opening if our public office is shut down or if we cannot otherwise meet in person due to Governor Inslee's "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" order?
Updated April 16, 2020

Updated April 16 to provide minor clarifications regarding the "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" order and opening bids remotely.

While the governor's "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" order is in effect or while the public office is closed, public bid openings should be held remotely. If the legislative body is involved in the bid opening or contract approval, the agency should review the Attorney General's Office general guidance regarding coronavirus and the Open Public Meetings Act for how to properly hold a remote meeting of the governing body. (Also see the AG's Supplemental Guidance issued March 26 and subsequently extended through May 31 to reflect Proclamation 20-28 and its extensions.)

Some agencies are waiving the competitive process through an emergency declaration (RCW 39.04.280). There may be a portion of the competitive process that you can alter/cancel during the emergency, such as the sealed bid requirement.

If you have a bid program that allows electronic bid receipt and which holds bids as electronically sealed until a designated release time, you might default to this process for all bids, or waive the requirement for hard copy bids under an emergency declaration and receive only electronic copies per some other instruction.

Some agencies are having bids placed in drop boxes, delivered by carrier, or by setting an appointment to drop off documents. You should discuss appropriate options with your legal counsel.

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Public Records

Special thanks to Assistant Attorney General Morgan Damerow for his assistance in drafting these PRA FAQs.

Is the five business day response deadline in RCW 42.56.520(1) still in effect during this emergency?
Updated February 3, 2021

Updated February 3 to reflect the extension of the five-day response waiver for the duration of the emergency except for requests received electronically.

For public records requests received electronically: the 5-day response deadline was reinstated beginning May 12, 2020.

For public records received by non-electronic means: the 5-day response deadline has been waived for the duration of the emergency, or until further amended or rescinded. Below is a more detailed explanation.

On March 24, 2020, the Governor issued Proclamation 20-28, temporarily waiving the requirement in RCW 42.56.520(1) to response to a request for public records within five business days.

Specifically, the Governor waived the following language in BOLD:

Responses to requests for public records shall be made promptly by agencies, the office of the secretary of the senate, and the office of the chief clerk of the house of representatives. Within five business days of receiving a public record request, an agency, the office of the secretary of the senate, or the office of the chief clerk of the house of representatives must respond in one of the ways provided in this subsection.

On May 11, 2020, the legislative leadership agreed to extend this waiver until midnight on May 31, except for public records requests that are received electronically (recognized by the Governor in Proclamation 20-28.3)All public records requests received electronically on or after May 12, 2020 must be responded to within five business days. The waiver for non-electronic records has now been extended for the duration of the emergency (or until amended/rescinded) by the state legislature (Senate Concurrent Resolution 8402) and Proclamation 20-28.15.

The extension letter does not define “electronically” but a conservative interpretation is that if you receive a PRA request by email, online portal, or e-facsimile, you must respond within five business days of receipt.

If you receive a request by physical delivery, including paper fax, mail, or private parcel delivery (UPS, FedEx), you are still required to “promptly” respond to the request with a letter that includes one of the allowable responses from RCW 42.56.520(1), but you are not required to do so within five business days.

However, agencies that have the staff and the technology for remote work should still try to respond within five days.

Local governments should prominently post on their website and/or communicate to the public through other means that the five-business day response time has been suspended by the proclamation for non-electronic requests but will make all feasible efforts to respond promptly to requests for records. You may also want to update your website and social media pages to clarify how to submit a public records request. Since most agencies have a policy of not accepting public records requests through their social media pages, those pages should clearly direct requestors to the correct place.

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Our customer service counter has closed. Are we still required to accept public records requests? What if a requestor wants to physically inspect records?
Updated February 3, 2021

Updated February 3 to reflect the extension of the emergency PRA provisions for the duration of the emergency.

On March 24, 2020, to prevent “bringing people in contact with one another at a time when the virus is rapidly spreading,” the Governor issued Proclamation 20-28, temporarily waiving certain requirements of the Public Records Act that would normally require in-person contact between the public and the local agency staff.

Specifically, the Governor waived the following language in BOLD:

RCW 42.56.080(2)
Agency facilities shall be made available to any person for the copying of public records except when and to the extent that this would unreasonably disrupt the operations of the agency. Agencies shall honor requests received in person during an agency's normal office hours, or by mail or email, for identifiable public records unless exempted by provisions of this chapter.

RCW 42.56.090
Public records shall be available for inspection and copying during the customary office hours of the agency … for a minimum of thirty hours per week, except weeks that include state legal holidays, unless the person making the request and the agency … agree on a different time.

RCW 42.56.100
Agencies shall adopt and enforce reasonable rules and regulations …consonant with the intent of this chapter to provide full public access to public records.

These waivers have now been extended for the duration of the emergency (or until amended/rescinded) by the state legislature (Senate Concurrent Resolution 8402) and Proclamation 20-28.15.

What this means is that local agencies are still required to accept and process public records requests, but only by mail or email or other non-in-person means. Agencies are not required and should not accept any in-person requests for records.

Further, requests for in-person inspection of records should not be allowed while the Proclamation is in effect, and any previously scheduled appointments should be cancelled. The agency should discuss with the requestor potential alternatives to providing physical access to the records, such as:

  • Schedule to provide access to the records once the Proclamation and other “Stay-at-Home” orders are lifted;
  • Invite the requestor to withdraw the request and resubmit later;
  • Provide records in electronic form and/or paper copies that are then sent through the mail; or
  • Other solutions that still comply with any of the Governor’s Proclamations and Orders.

The agency should also explore alternate means to receive payment for copies of records such as via mail-in check or credit/debit card over the phone or through a secure website.

Local governments should prominently post on their website and/or communicate to the public through other means that in-person requests for records will not be accepted and that requests for in-person inspection of records will not be allowed as long as the Proclamation remains in effect. If the agency has not done so already, it should post how to remotely submit requests and communicate with the Public Records Officer.

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We have received records requests related to our response to the coronavirus outbreak. Are we required to prioritize those requests?
Updated February 3, 2021

Updated February 3 to reflect the extension of the five-day response waiver for records received through non-electronic means for the duration of the emergency.

The public records process is not the most effective or efficient method of transmitting this type of information to the public, but once a records request is filed, it needs to be processed as such under the Public Records Act (PRA).

Normally, under RCW 42.56.520, when a request is received, an agency is required to do one of the following things within five business days:

  1. Provide the records requested;
  2. Provide a link to the specific records requested on the agency’s website;
  3. Acknowledge receipt of the request and providing a reasonable estimate of the time necessary to respond;
  4. Acknowledge receipt of the request and requesting clarification for a request that is unclear;
  5. Deny the request.

The PRA does not require an agency to take action on a faster timeline and the state legislative leadership (recognized by the governor in Proclamation 20-28.2) extended the five-day response waiver through May 11, 2020. On May 11, the state legislative leaders further extended the five-day waiver through May 31but not for requests received electronically (recognized by the Governor in Proclamation 20-28.3). All public records requests received electronically on or after May 12, 2020 must be responded to within five business days.

The five-day response waiver for non-electronic records requests has now been extended for the duration of the emergency (or until amended/rescinded) by the state legislature (Senate Concurrent Resolution 8402) and Proclamation 20-28.15.

The PRA does not require an agency to prioritize certain types of requests or requestors over others. At the same time, “slow-walking” a response or other unreasonable delay could be the basis of sanctions in the future.

MRSC encourages agencies to be proactive in sharing information on COVID-19 measures with their employees, unions, and the public on an ongoing basis. Sharing that information should occur separately from the PRA response process since the PRA is not structured or designed to address communications on emergent situations.

You will likely receive many requests for such records during the course of this emergency situation. If your agency is capable, consider sharing relevant documents on your website so you can direct requestors to the already available information.

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How do we deal with pending requests if we are unable to perform searches due to closure/staff unavailability/telecommuting?
Updated March 25, 2020

An agency must make a reasonable estimate of time for the production of records.

The reasonableness of an estimated response time may depend on a number of factors including the number of records requested and the difficulty in gathering and reviewing the requested records. If an agency is in the early stages of responding to a request, the agency should take factors such as the ability to search for records, closure, or reduced capacity due to telecommuting into consideration in identifying an estimated production date. If an agency is further along in responding to a request, an agency may extend its estimate of time for the production of records when more time is needed than initially anticipated.

If an agency is challenged on the reasonableness of an agency’s time estimate, or an extension, the burden of proof is on the agency to show that its estimate, or extension, was reasonable. While the PRA does not require an agency to provide a written explanation of its time estimate, good communications benefit both the requestor and an agency. Consider providing information to the requestor about the difficulties the agency is facing in processing a pending request.

Keep in mind the operative word for the estimate of time is “reasonable.” Each request should be considered separately taking into account the factors and issues involved in responding to each request. An agency should not use a standard estimate for every request.

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Our office is closed to the public and non-essential personnel are telecommuting. How do we process requests remotely?
Updated March 25, 2020

Your ability to process requests remotely will largely depend on what, if any, technology solutions your agency has adopted. Please see MRSC PRA and Records Management Tech Guide for a comprehensive review of PRA technology used throughout the state. Given the possibility that this situation may continue for many months, it may be worth considering investing in technology that assists along these lines.

At the very least, you should have a system set up where you can receive requests by mail or other electronic means and provide the response letter required by RCW 42.56.520(1) as soon as feasible.

Keep in mind, it will likely be difficult to search paper files for responsive records if your agency is on extended telecommuting and non-essential personnel are subject to a "Stay-at-Home" order. Consider providing electronic records in the first installment(s) and then provide an estimate of when paper files may be available for a later installment. Be sure to document your search efforts and communicate with the requestor why it may take longer to search for certain records.

Further, if you have any pending requests and upcoming deadlines for promised installments, now is a good time to communicate with the requestors to let them know you will likely not meet the original proposed deadline and provide a reasonable estimate when the records may be available.

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Finance Issues

Can a local government modify and/or implement a less-than-daily deposit schedule due to the impacts of COVID-19? For example, switching to every other day or some other schedule for depositing payments received.
Published March 24, 2020

RCW 43.09.240 reads in part:

Every public officer and employee, whose duty it is to collect or receive payments due or for the use of the public shall deposit such moneys collected or received by him or her with the treasurer of the local government once every twenty-four consecutive hours. The treasurer may in his or her discretion grant an exception where such daily transfers would not be administratively practical or feasible as long as the treasurer has received a written request from the department, district, or agency, and where the department, district, or agency certifies that the money is held with proper safekeeping and that the entity carries out proper theft protection to reduce risk of loss of funds. Exceptions granted by the treasurer shall state the frequency with which deposits are required as long as no exception exceeds a time period greater than one deposit per week.

All local government entities whose duty it is to collect or receive payments may make exceptions to the daily deposit schedule if granted by the treasurer.

For many special purpose districts, the county treasurer is the treasurer for the district. RCW 36.29.010 reads:

Money received by all entities for whom the county treasurer serves as treasurer must be deposited within twenty-four hours in an account designated by the county treasurer unless a waiver is granted by the county treasurer in accordance with RCW 43.09.240.

In all cases – whether cities, counties or special purpose districts – the requirement for daily deposits may be granted an exception to this requirement by the treasurer. If daily deposits are administratively not practical or feasible a written exception can be requested and/or granted by the treasurer. However, it’s important to note that the statute requires at a minimum of weekly deposits.

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Is it legal to expend lodging tax revenue for festivals and events that are cancelled? What if we anticipate that it will be cancelled but it hasn't happened yet?
Published March 24, 2020

Chapter 67.28 RCW provides the basis for distribution of lodging tax funds. RCW 67.28.1816 allows the funds to be distributed to convention and visitors bureau or destination marketing organizations for tourism marketing; special events and festivals; operations and capital expenditures of tourism-related facilities owned or operated by a the municipality or a public facilities district; and operations of tourism-related facilities owned or operated by nonprofit organizations.

The planning, organization, and preparation for festivals and events are all allowed expenditures for the marketing and operations of special events and festivals (RCW 67.28.1816(1)(b)). The current state of emergency that has been declared resulted in the cancellation of many events but for many of these cancellations there are costs that could still be still be covered. These are unprecedented times and the emergency declaration does not eliminate expenses already incurred for marketing and other operational costs.

Cities, towns and counties will have to assess individual circumstances of those distributions associated with a festival or event. In many cases the direct costs associated with cancellation would be considered an allowable cost, such as non-refundable deposits on facilities, permit fees, and other event organization costs. While considering the costs that are still eligible, you will also want to ask whether the event organizer purchased insurance that would allow for the recovery of some of these operating costs when an event is cancelled.

For events and festivals that will be occurring in the future it will be difficult to estimate whether those activities will continue to be held. Communication with the event organizers will be an important component of monitoring and oversight. Will the event/festival be postponed to a later time in the year, or will it be cancelled altogether? Should the distribution of lodging tax monies be refunded or applied to the re-scheduled event? If the event is not being rescheduled should you consider applying current year distributions to next year’s event. The important factor will be your oversight and internal controls to ensure that lodging tax distributions have been utilized appropriately, whether that is now or in the foreseeable future.

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Can lodging tax allocations be changed or rescinded?
Published June 23, 2020

Both the use and the dollar amount of lodging tax allocations that have been approved by the legislative body may be changed, but the use of funds must always be consistent with RCW 67.28.1816 and as defined in RCW 67.28.080. Lodging tax funds are restricted resources that must be used according to state statute, regardless of the pandemic and its attendant financial challenges. Limits on the use of these restricted resources have not been waived by any of the Governor’s proclamations to date.

Changing the use or dollar amount of lodging tax awards

As an example, let’s say your agency has awarded the local chamber of commerce $10,000 in lodging tax funds for events, but the events have been cancelled and the chamber now wants to use the money for operations. To avoid potential audit issues for local governments, MRSC tends to take a conservative approach, so the most transparent option for either a change in funding amount (see a 2016 informal opinion from the Attorney General’s Office) or use would be to follow the procedure and timeline in RCW 67.28.1817(2) outlined below.

  1. Applicant or legislative body proposes a revised amount or the revised use of previously awarded funds.
  2. Lodging Tax Advisory Committee (LTAC) reviews the request, makes comments on the proposal, and submits it to the legislative body.
  3. Legislative body approves the requested amount/use or awards a different amount (or a different use). The legislative body’s decision is final.

(If your municipality has a population below 5,000, there is no requirement for an LTAC, and the entire awards process may be handled by the legislative body.)

Rescinding lodging tax awards for cancelled events

One way to address this could be for the legislative body to pass a resolution rescinding all awards for which a contract has not been executed. If funds have not been disbursed yet and the recipient intends to hold the event in the next fiscal year or next award cycle, the applicants should reapply for the funds for that period. If a recipient requests reimbursement for expenses already incurred, the municipality is under no obligation to reimburse those expenditures if no contract has been executed.

 For those cases in which your agency has executed contracts, each contract should be reviewed by your agency’s attorney and other relevant staff for next steps. MRSC cannot provide detailed advice on executed contracts.

Additional tips

  • Communicate! Let your recipients and your LTAC (if applicable) know what you’re planning and give them time to comment.
  • Keep a good paper trail! If you’re disbursing partial funds for reimbursement of a cancelled event, make sure you document the reimbursement, get all the back-up paperwork for the expenditures, and clearly state the reasons for the cancellation, date of cancellation, and any other information about the circumstances that may be relevant.
  • Be mindful of your budget appropriations timeline. If you are on an annual budget, the funds will need to be appropriated in the next budget. This is another good reason to rescind awards for cancelled events and go through the application process in the next budget year.
  • It is important to follow your municipality’s established procedures and existing statutes despite the complications from the pandemic.

For a full discussion of lodging taxes, see our Lodging Tax webpage. MRSC is not the final authority on lodging tax use and can only offer an opinion. The State Auditor’s office can give a final determination via their helpdesk.

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How can local governments address insufficient cash flow as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Published April 6, 2020

In response to the pandemic, local governments could find themselves dealing with increased expenditures – such as overtime for frontline personnel, technology-related costs for working remotely, and other unanticipated costs – as well as disruptions in the receipt of certain revenues. Many local agencies have deferred certain types of payment due dates, late fees, and fines. Other revenues related to business activity could be impacted by the requirement to suspend many business operations. Sales taxes and local business taxes (B&O, business licenses, etc.) could be significantly impacted depending on the length of the crisis. Several counties have extending the due date for first-half property taxes that will have impact on all jurisdictions that collect. What are some options for addressing cashflow?

Use of Reserves: Some governments may find that they will need to rely upon their reserves. In some cases, these reserves are part of their operating funds themselves and appropriated as part of their routine budget process. Use of these reserves may not require any additional action. In other cases, the reserve is part of the operating fund, but not appropriated as yet. That may require a budget amendment to authorize the use of these funds. Other instances involve a reserve that is held in a special fund (such as a cumulative reserve fund). In those cases, the government will need to determine if that fund has been appropriated for expenditure as yet or not.

Interfund Loans: The government may find insufficient cashflow in one fund while having sufficient idle funds in a different fund of the entity. A loan from one fund to another is permissible but requires prior approval by the legislative authority. The State Auditor’s Office provides good guidance on interfund activity, including interfund loans in its BARS manuals (cash and GAAP). The government may be able to provide a “blanket” authority for interfund loans to staff in response to temporary cashflow concerns. However, limitations, conditions, and reporting should be included in any “blanket guidance.” You can find several good examples on the MRSC website.

Short-term Loans: A government may find it has insufficient resources in any fund to address cashflow needs. In that case, you may need to seek a short-term loan from a lending institution. MRSC has previously published a variety of resources that may prove helpful in thinking through this issue. They include: Debt Management Policies, Types of Municipal Debt (which has a section on short-term debt), and General Obligation Debt Limits.

Specialized legal support (bond counsel) and independent financial advisors can help you navigate this process and select your best debt options. Make sure to include your policy makers and in-house legal counsel in this process from the very beginning.

In light of the challenges we are facing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency may want to consult their primary banking partner as to the availability of credit to the agency as part of your existing banking relationship. We are hearing that many in the banking community are unable to prioritize access to resources for local governments which may complicate your efforts. Your financial advisor can provide advice to your agency in this regard as well.

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The governing body meeting has been postponed and bills are due before the next meeting. Can a local agency approve payroll and accounts payable in advance of the meeting?
Published April 8, 2020

Local governments are authorized to adopt a policy for disbursement prior to legislative approval (RCW 42.24.180).

But for those entities that do not already have such a policy in place, it may not be possible to adopt such a policy under the current emergency situation. However, RCW 38.52.070(2) authorizes local governments to bypass certain procedural requirements if a local emergency has been declared.

While these procedural requirements are primarily geared toward contracting, purchasing, and budget requirements, the statute also speaks to the appropriation and expenditure of public funds, which would provide authority for the payment of accounts payable associated with normal maintenance and operations expenditures including payroll. This exception will help ensure that essential government operations may continue.

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Utility Billing/Collection

Who has authority to prohibit utility shut offs during an emergency?
Published March 19, 2020

Local governments have broad powers of authority during an emergency under chapter 38.52 RCW. Additionally, the governor’s office may issue an order to prohibit utility shut offs under the provisions of RCW 43.06.220. Specifically, sub-section (1)(h) states that the governor may issue proclamations prohibiting “[s]uch other activities as he or she reasonably believes should be prohibited to help preserve and maintain life, health, property or the public peace.”

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Can a local government allow for deferred payment of utility bills?
Updated October 6, 2021

Updated October 6 to reflect the expiration of Proclamation 20-23.16 and the statewide utility prohibitions.

Yes, our topic page on Utility Discounts and Financial Assistance Programs provides legal authority, examples of defining eligibility, and sample codes.

In addition, beginning in April 2020 Governor Inslee issued Proclamation 20-23.2 et seq. which required energy, water, and telecommunications providers to develop Customer Support Programs and prohibited them from disconnecting service due to nonpayment, refusing to reconnect service, and charging late fees or reconnection fees.

This proclamation was amended and extended a number of times, but it expired on September 30, 2021. For more information, see our blog post Utility Late Fee/Shutoff Moratorium Expires September 30: Now What?

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Personnel Issues

Can a local government require COVID-19 antibody testing to decide whether an employee can return to work?
Published June 18, 2020

No. In guidance updated June 17, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says that:

An antibody test constitutes a medical examination under the ADA. In light of CDC’s Interim Guidelines that antibody test results “should not be used to make decisions about returning persons to the workplace,” an antibody test at this time does not meet the ADA’s “job related and consistent with business necessity” standard for medical examinations or inquiries for current employees. Therefore, requiring antibody testing before allowing employees to re-enter the workplace is not allowed under the ADA. Please note that an antibody test is different from a test to determine if someone has an active case of COVID-19 (i.e., a viral test). The EEOC has already stated that COVID-19 viral tests are permissible under the ADA.

The EEOC will continue to closely monitor CDC’s recommendations, and could update this discussion in response to changes in CDC’s recommendations.

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Can a local government agency require employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine?
Updated August 11, 2021

Updated August 11 to include link to updated blog post on COVID-19 vaccination requirements.

Yes, subject to certain restrictions. As we noted in our blog post COVID-19 Vaccination Requirements in the Local Government Workplace (updated August 11, 2021), required vaccination programs have been upheld by courts. Additionally, employers will need to consider medical accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and religious exemptions under the Civil Rights Act.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its guidance document What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws. Section K of that document specifically addresses vaccination requirements.

However, a number of local governments are using vaccine incentive programs instead of requiring vaccinations. For more information, see our blog post Vaccine Incentive Policies in the Local Government Workplace.

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Can a local government require employees to tell their supervisor or HR if they have contracted COVID-19?
Updated May 21, 2020

Updated May 21, 2020 with a new link to the EEOC webpage on What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws.

Probably yes.

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from making disability-related inquiries and requiring medical examinations unless (1) the employer can show that the inquiry or exam is job-related and consistent with business necessity, or (2) the employer has a reasonable belief that the employee poses a “direct threat” to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot otherwise be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.

According to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), whether a particular outbreak rises to the level of a “direct threat” depends on the severity of the illness. The EEOC instructs employers that the assessment by the CDC or public health authorities provides the objective evidence needed for a disability-related inquiry or medical examination. During a pandemic, an employer does not have to wait until an employee develops symptoms to ask questions about exposure to a pandemic influenza during recent travel. If the CDC or state or local public health officials recommend that people who visit specified locations remain at home after traveling, an employer may ask an employee what locations they have traveled to, even if the travel was for personal reasons.

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Can a local government compel an employee to come to work if they are well but just don't feel comfortable coming to the workplace for health reasons?
Updated April 10, 2020

Updated April 10 to clarify the impact of the governor's stay-at-home order.

While the Governor’s "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" Order is in effect, only essential employees can be at the worksite. Once the order has expired, the employer still should follow all CDC recommended practices regarding social distancing and sanitation to minimize employee fears of contracting the virus.

After that, an employer should determine whether the employee has protected leave (such as the need to care for a child at home due to no school) or a health condition that needs to be accommodated (such as an autoimmune disorder or mental health).

If there does not appear to be a valid reason for not coming in, an employer should nevertheless remember the “just cause” standard for imposing employee discipline and consult with its legal counsel prior to taking any action.

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We are onboarding an employee who will be able to work for us remotely. Can we complete the I-9 employment eligibility verification form remotely due to COVID-19 concerns?
Published March 25, 2020

Under normal circumstances, page 2 of the form requires in-person review of the new employee’s documentation, and this typically is done by the employer at the time a new employee starts work. There are some alternatives, however.

First, the Department of Homeland Security recently announced that, due to COVID-19 concerns, remote review and completion of page 2 of the I-9 form may occur when operations at a workplace are being conducted entirely remotely. This option would therefore not be available in situations where some number of essential employees are coming to the workplace. For more on this option, see this article from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), which details the restrictions and limited circumstances under which this option is available.

There is another article from SHRM that addresses other alternatives to having a new employee come to the workplace in person for completion of page 2 of the I-9 form. The article explains that the I-9 document review process need not be conducted by an agency employee and could be undertaken by an individual (possibly even a family member) at the employee’s location. The SHRM contains the following passage:

Under the circumstances raised by COVID-19, USCIS will consider 'any person' even to include a family or household member," said Diane Butler, an attorney in the Seattle office of Davis Wright. "The employer must take steps to ensure that the person understands the obligation and takes the responsibility seriously.

There is also an option for having the verification occur at a “remote completion center” that is established for the purpose of meeting the I-9 verification requirements.

Neither of these options are standard practice for most local governments. If your agency is considering one of these options, it should consult with legal counsel prior to doing so to determine the best path forward.

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Eviction Moratoriums

Does a city/county have the authority to prohibit evictions during an emergency period? Can a city/county make provisions for deferred rent payments during an emergency?
Updated September 27, 2021

Updated September 27, 2021 to add reference to the extension of Proclamation 21-09 and the statewide eviction moratorium "bridge" through October 31, 2021.

UPDATE: On March 18, 2020, Gov. Inslee imposed a 30-day statewide moratorium on residential evictions for non-payment of rent (Proclamation 20-19). These protections have since been modified and extended most recently through 11:59 PM on October 31, 2021 (see Proclamation 21-09.1).

The answer is unclear. The City of Seattle adopted an emergency moratorium, but Seattle has broader authority than most other jurisdictions. In the Seattle eviction proclamation, the mayor cites to the city charter, and city code, as well as the state constitution. In particular, SMC 10.02.020 allows the mayor to proclaim “such other orders as are imminently necessary for the protection of life and property.”

Beyond that, the procedures for evictions are governed by state law and are addressed through the judicial processes in county superior court. While the policy reasons for such an order are understandable, it is not clear, even in an emergency, whether a local government can adopt a measure that would prohibit the use of a judicial process that is otherwise available under state law.

Although first class and code cities under state law have broad powers of local self-government (including emergency management), they do not have authority to take actions that conflict with state law. Landlords may argue that such eviction orders are preempted by the Washington Residential Landlord Tenant Act (chapter 59.18 RCW).

Since eviction is a process governed by state statute, the Governor may be the most appropriate individual to issue an emergency order restricting residential evictions. Jurisdictions considering such measures should consult with their legal counsel.

A local agency, as a landlord, may be able to provide for deferred rent during an emergency if the specific facts warrant it. For example, if the facility in which the tenant’s business is located is closed due to the emergency, then suspending or deferring rent would be an appropriate measure. The broader question of whether rent relief may be provided should be deferred to a time when more is known about the overall impact of the emergency on the tenant’s business.

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Last Modified: May 11, 2022